Jim Bellows’ mistake

The Times’ March 7 obituary on Jim Bellows skips what Bellows himself called the biggest mistake of his career, made when he was a features editor at the Los Angeles Times. It leaves out a dark moment in the history of The Times at a juncture where it connects to a shameful period in American politics.

The Times goes into a lot of detail about Bellows’ many accomplishments as an underdog editor who won the affection of his newspaper colleagues with his passion for vivid writing and his shrewd sense of how to compete against the bigger paper in town. He edited the Washington Star, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and other publications. But for seven years, Bellows worked at The Times as an associate editor in charge of the paper’s features pages.

At the Times, he started and edited Joyce Haber’s widely syndicated gossip column. On May 19, 1970, The Times published a Haber item that spurred coverage around the world and led to the demise of a famous Hollywood actress. It was headlined, “Miss A Rates as Expectant Mother.”

The item made clear that Miss A was the actress Jean Seberg, who starred as the heroine of Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan” and became internationally known for her role in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film, “Breathless.” Haber’s item claimed that the father of the baby Seberg carried at the time was not her husband, French novelist-diplomat Romain Gary, but an official with the Black Panthers.

Documents from the time show that the smear had been concocted by then- FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and agents in his Los Angeles bureau to punish Seberg for her political views. Soon after the item appeared, Seberg lost the baby after a premature delivery. At the baby’s funeral, the 31-year-old actress had the casket opened to show the baby was white and the gossip started by The Times was false.

Seberg went into a downward spiral that ended when she died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1979. How the story got planted in The Times and spread to media around the world has long been held up as an object lesson among journalists about the importance of double-checking facts and sources.

Bellows edited Haber’s Seberg item before it was printed. “I did not vet the Seberg story enough,” he told me when he spoke at length with me about the episode for two piecesI wrote in The Times in April 2002 that went into depth about the roles played by Bellows and another high-ranking editor at the paper. The other was Bill Thomas, who went on to become the paper’s executive editor. It was Thomas who first received a note on a plain piece of paper bearing the Seberg “tip” and passed it to Bellows. Thomas told me he received the note from a reporter whose name he couldn’t recall, that he didn’t study it closely or ask about the unidentified “informant” it cited.

No one checked the information alleging a movie star’s pregnancy by a black radical before Haber’s story got into the paper.

As it got picked up by news organizations around the world, Haber was questioned by the Associated Press and other organizations. Asked for her sources, she didn’t give them. Her sources were her editors. Neither Bellows nor Thomas came to her rescue. “Joyce took a real beating on the Seberg thing,” Bellows told me and I reported in The Times. Asked why he didn’t step forward as his writer took the blame, he admitted, “I should have.”

In the end, the two editors blamed each other. Thomas argued that he bore no responsibility for having become a conduit for the information. But others I quoted disagreed. The late David Halberstam encouraged me repeatedly as I worked on the story, and I quoted him: “This is not about gossip. This is really about political reporting of a very dubious kind. The Times did not set out to destroy her. One powerful institution manipulated another. The result was the destruction of a fragile human being.”

The Times’ obituary describes Bellows’ role as Haber’s editor but simply moves on without any mention of the Seberg story that binds them as figures in a well-known, painful part of journalism history. Supported by several Times editors, I spent months reviewing what happened, one of those efforts by a paper to look at itself. I went through FBI documents, interviewed retired FBI agents, Department of Justice officials and key editors and reporters. I wrote two stories, one a profile of Bellows in which he talks about the Seberg incident, the other a long piece going deeply into what happened at the Times.

I find it ironic that The Times, after going to such lengths to explore the record of an egregious journalistic event that shadowed it for decades, should now turn around and act as if it never happened.

Bellows was a gifted, even brilliant, editor. I and The Times editors who oversaw my work on this story did so because we believed that it stood as an important reminder that those who write and edit the news have a lot of responsibility, that we must do this work carefully because it has the power to save and destroy lives. Journalism is under assault from all sides these days. The Times is going through an unspeakably difficult period. But that makes it no less important to stay mindful of stories, even those about our colorful heroes, which hold the business accountable.

Allan M. Jalon, a freelance journalist living in New York, is a former Times staff writer.